7 Theater Trends Revisited, Again

While others were busy assessing the trends in New York theater of the decade that had just ended, on January 1, 2020, I asked: What will be the trends of the future? I had a list of seven questions (eg “What form will ‘artivism’ take?”) and called it my 2020 vision. I was of course blindsided by the pandemic, which arrived within weeks.

Still, at the end of 2020, I took stock of what I had written twelve months earlier, to see whether any of my questions about the future had been answered; whether and how any of the seven trends I had written about had taken hold.

It’s now exactly a year after that, the end of 2021, and given how much has changed this year, and how little, it seems a good time to revisit these trends again. They remain questions about the future, but they are now also assessments of this past year, and a comparison with the year before.

“Eye Enclosing The Theatre At Besancon France,” an engraving made in 1847 by Claude Nicolas Ledoux

1. Screens

“Screens will surely continue to be a major way that an increasing number of people will experience ‘live theater,’” I wrote on January 1st, 2020.

In December, 2020, I pointed out that screens were for much of 2020 the ONLY way anybody was experiencing live theater.

By December 2021, in-person theater seemed to have made a triumphant return — “Broadway is back!” — until the Omicron variant and breakthrough infections in cast and crew have suddenly caused a raft of Broadway shows cancelling performances “out of an abundance of caution.” The theaters and shows that seem to be in the best position now are those that have adopted a “hybrid” model — meaning their productions are presented in two versions, in-person theater and digital theater. Several Off-Broadway theater companies have embraced the model, including New York Theater Workshop and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and one Broadway show: “Clydes,” which will live-stream at the end of its in-person run. This is an indication that the online experimenting of the past 18 months has become an increasingly accepted part of the theatrical landscape, but the question remains: Will this incorporation of digital theater continue past the pandemic?

2. Inclusion: Who Will Be On Stage?

Two years ago, I wondered whether the talk of inclusion would become more than just talk. How much, I asked, will the lived experience of “teenagers, African-Americans, Asians, disabled, gay,  immigrant, Latino, Muslim, the poor, trans, women, etc.” be depicted on stage? Will the portrayals be accurate? Who will portray them?

The answer, at least in 2021, seems to be “it depends.”

There were six plays on Broadway written by African-American playwrights, with a largely African-American cast, that opened on Broadway within three months, from August 27th to November 23rd.   “Pass Over” by Antoinette Nwandu, was the first new play to open in-person in 2021, followed by “Chicken & Biscuits” by Douglas Lyons, “Thoughts of a Colored Man” by  Keenan Scott II, “Lackawanna Blues” by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “Trouble in Mind” by Alice Childress, and then “Clyde’s” by Lynn Nottage. All except Nottage were making their Broadway playwriting debuts, including Alice Childress, who’s been dead for 27 years. 
In addition, Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” returned for another, brief run on Broadway, and Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” which gained raves Off-Broadway, is scheduled to open on Broadway in January. As fellow theater critic Jan Simpson has pointed out “That’s twice the number of all the shows by black playwrights that opened on the too-aptly named Great White Way in the five seasons before the pandemic shutdown.”

On the other hand, rather than having trans lives presented when Broadway reopened in 2021, we got “Mrs. Doubtfire,” a musical comedy adaptation of a movie about a straight man who disguises himself as a woman so that he can fool his ex-wife into allowing to spend time with their children, as their nanny. In a number called “Make Me A Woman,” the protagonist’s brother, a gay stylist, offers him a choice of the kind of woman he could be, an excuse to dress the female ensemble members in Madame Tussaud-level lookalikes for Jacqueline Onassis, Princess Diana, Cher, Grace Kelly, and Donna Summer — and follow this with the male ensemble members dressed as lookalikes for Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher, Janet Reno, and Oscar Wilde. To quote another fellow theater critic, Helen Shaw: “The joke, ha ha ha, is that these actual women looked like men in drag. Oh, did they, now? I started to grind my back teeth down to stumps.”

3. Activism

Theater workers’ activism in two different arenas was a central theater story of 2020 – pushes for a racial reckoning, particularly on Broadway, and for government support for the arts. The push for government support for the arts paid off with the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. And a reckoning (though not a racial one) played out when Broadway producer Scott Rudin, called out for decades of bullying, announced he would “step back” from his Broadway productions. As for the racial reckoning: There were growing signs in 2021 that the theater industry is paying attention; one small example: The activist group Broadway Advocacy Coalition received a special Tony Award.

4. Innovation or Retrenchment?

“Will there be any Hamilton 2.0s?” I asked in January, 2020. I meant “original works, told freshly, exploring new territory.” There was unquestionably some continuing experimentation in digital forms of theatrical storytelling, and some interesting new approaches in the largely outdoor, socially-distanced theater that reopened over the summer. But innovation was frankly more evident in 2020, than in 2021; the main focus at the end of this year has been to reopen already existing theater, safely and profitably. While there has been some good new theater, our attitude toward innovation may have changed in complicated ways. As I wrote in introducing my ten favorite shows this year, “I certainly am not alone in being more conscious of the extraordinary effort to mount a satisfying work of theater even in the best of circumstances, and this year has been the worst of circumstances. After so long an absence, it’s also just thrilling to be sitting in a theater.  At the same time, what with the ups and downs in the news about the state of infections and variants, I couldn’t help occasionally thinking to myself: Is this show worth risking my life for?”

5.Accessibility and Affordability or The Bottom Line?

“Some of the biggest theater news that received the least attention over the past decade,” I wrote, “were the concrete steps taken to make Broadway more accessible for theatergoers with disabilities,” such as on-demand closed captioning in real time. I wondered whether this would spread past Broadway.

“And ‘accessibility’ shouldn’t just mean to would-be theatergoers with disabilities. How serious will theaters work to make theatergoing affordable?”

Last year, when physical theaters were shut down, the theater on offer was generally more affordable, often free. The “reopening” of in-person theater hasn’t much continued that silver-lining trend. The focus of institutional and commercial theater has been about keeping afloat. Will there be a renewed commitment to accessibility when the economy becomes more stable?

6. Theater Criticism: Who will drive the theater conversation?

“With the death of so many newspapers, and the elimination or reduction of theater coverage by those that remain, how will theatergoers decide what to see?” I asked at the beginning of 2020. “Will it be left to the chatrooms, will new sustainable forms of theater criticism emerge – or will it be left to the publicists?”

At the end of 2021, there are a few encouraging efforts at sustaining, and broadening, the field of criticism — a much lauded example being the Kennedy Center’s BIPOC Critics Lab  to train Black, Indigenous and People of Color “who haven’t been welcomed into cultural criticism.”

But such efforts feel like the exception to the continuing evaporation of the profession, and the bolder (and I believe ultimately self-sabotaging) antipathy towards critics on the part of the theater establishment. “I expect the next generation of content creators to not care so much about critics,” Broadway producer Ken Davenport wrote at the end of last year, calling most critics “random people” and “Internet trolls,” as opposed to paid newspaper staff critics — not mentioning, and perhaps not caring,  that there are fewer and fewer of the latter.

7.  2021’s Place in Theater History?

In the first of these trend pieces, I asked “how much will we look to the past for inspiration? What era will we most resemble?” The answer was obvious by the end of 2020, and it’s obvious at the end of 2021 as well: the eras of theater shutdowns, especially the Plague years in Shakespearean England — In the decade between 1603 and 1613 “the total theatrical closures due to the plague accumulated to a grand total of 78 months,” Shakespeare scholar William Baker has written –  and  the 1918 influenza pandemic. As inflation threatens, and the pandemic drags on, will this also be reminiscent of the Great Depression of the 1930s? Will the government of 2022 and beyond see the arts the way the government of the 1930s did (with its Federal Theatre Project), and some in government in 2021 have — as worthy of subsidy and support? Let’s keep an eye on that.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

1 thought on “7 Theater Trends Revisited, Again

  1. Yes, yes, yes. Well said and well written. Mortality-risks notwithstanding, I look forward to seeing how this one’s 3rd act gets written.

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